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Float and Ski Equipped Helicopters

Helicopters are capable of landing in places inaccessible to other aircraft. In addition to rooftops, mountain tops, pinnacles, and other unprepared locations, there are times when a pilot may have to operate a helicopter in areas that do not offer a solid place to land. For those operations, the normal skid gear configuration can be replaced with a set of floats for water operations or skis for winter operations. Note: In this chapter, it is assumed that the helicopter has a counterclockwise main rotor blade rotation as viewed from above.


Unlike airplanes, there is no additional rating required for helicopter float operations. However, it is strongly recommended that pilots seek instruction from a qualified instructor prior to operating a float equipped helicopter. Check the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) or Rotorcraft Flight Manual (RFM) for any limitations that may apply when operating with floats installed.


[Figure 9-1]


Helicopter floats are constructed of a rubberized fabric, or nylon coated with neoprene or urethane, and may be of the fixed utility or emergency pop-out type. Fixed utility floats typically consist of two floats that may have one or more individual compartments inflated with air. Fixed floats may be of the skid-onfloat or the float-on-skid design.


[Figure 9-2]

A skid-on-float landing gear has no rigid structure in or around the float. The float rests on the hard surface and supports the weight of the helicopter. With this type of design, be aware of differences in float pressure. While the pressures are usually low, a substantial difference can cause the helicopter to lean while on a hard surface making it more susceptible to dynamic rollover. A float-on-skid landing gear has modified skids that support the weight of the helicopter on hard surfaces. The floats are attached to the top of the skid and only support the weight of the helicopter in water. A float with low pressure or one that is completely deflated will not cause any stability problems on a hard surface. Emergency pop-out floats consist of two or more floats with one or more individual compartments per float, depending on the size of the helicopter.


[Figure Figure 9-1. Float equipped helicopter. 9-3]

They are often inflated with compressed nitrogen Figure 9-2. Skid-on-float and float-on-skid landing gear. Figure 9-3. Pop-out float equipped helicopter. 9-2 or helium and are deployed prior to an emergency landing on water. The aircraft’s maintenance manual states that the pop-out floats must be tested periodically through a deployment check, a leak check, and a hydrostatic check of the compressed gas cylinder. To maintain the floats in good condition, perform the following tasks before and after every flight:

• Inflation—Check each float compartment for proper inflation. Record the pressure to obtain a trend over time to help recognize leaks.

• Condition—Inspect the entire float assembly for cuts, tears, condition of chafing strips, and security of all components.

• Clean—Wash oil, grease, or gasoline from the floats, since they deteriorate the float’s material.

• Flush—If the helicopter has been operated on salt water, flush the entire helicopter, including the float assembly, with plenty of fresh water.

• Storage—Avoid placing the floats in direct sunlight when not in use.


Helicopter floats have only a mild effect on aircraft performance, with just a slight weight penalty and reduction in cruise speed. However, the large surface area of the floats makes the helicopter very sensitive to any departure from coordinated flight. For example, in cruise flight, any yawing causes the helicopter to roll in the opposite direction, as shown in figure 9-4. A failure of the engine requires immediate pedal application to prevent an uncontrollable yaw, with a resulting roll. Similarly, a tail rotor failure in cruise flight requires immediate entry into autorotation to prevent a yaw and the subsequent roll. Corrections to this rolling moment can exceed rotor limits and cause mast bumping or droop stop pounding. Helicopters equipped with skids-on-floats are limited in ground operations. Minimize horizontal movement during takeoffs and landings from hard surfaces to avoid scuffing or causing other damage to the floats. Perform approaches, in which hover power may not be available, by flaring through hovering altitude in a slightly nose-high attitude to reduce forward motion. Just prior to the aft portion of the floats touching down, add sufficient collective pitch to slow the descent and stop forward motion. Rotate the cyclic forward to level the helicopter, and allow the helicopter to settle to the ground, then reduce collective pitch to the full down position. In helicopters with low inertia rotor systems, an autorotation to a hard surface requires a more aggressive flare to a near-zero groundspeed to ensure minimal movement upon landing. A running takeoff or landing on a hard surface is not recommended in helicopters equipped with skids-on-floats. Helicopters equipped with floats-on-skids are capable of performing running takeoffs and landings, and autorotations to hard surfaces require the same procedures as non-float equipped helicopters. The surfaces should be flat and clear of objects that may puncture, rip, or cause other damage to the floats. Do not attempt to land on the heels of floats-on-skids as they may cause the tail boom to kick up and be struck by the rotor. Helicopters equipped with stored emergency pop-out floats are operated with the same procedures as a helicopter without floats. When emergency floats are deployed, the helicopter may have similar characteristics to a helicopter with fixed floats and should be flown accordingly. If emergency floats are deployed during autorotation, the increased surface increases parasite drag with a resulting reduction in airspeed. To regain the recommended autorotation airspeed, the nose must be lowered. Effects on aircraft performance must also be considered during water operations. Air is often cooler near bodies of water, thus decreasing the density altitude but also increasing humidity. Although the higher humidity of the air has little effect on aerodynamic performance, it can reduce piston engine output by more then 10 percent. Properly leaning the mixture might possibly return some of this lost power. Turbine engines experience only a small, often negligible, power loss in high humidity conditions. Right Roll Yaw Left Intended Flightpath Figure 9-4. Float instability. 9-3 STARTING A helicopter on a hard surface has the friction of the skids or floats to counter the torque produced when the rotor is engaged. Therefore, you have more control over the helicopter if you can engage the rotors while it is sitting on a hard surface. On water, little or no antitorque control is present until the rotor system has accelerated to approximately 50 percent of its normal operating r.p.m. A heavily loaded helicopter’s floats sit deeper in the water and create more resistance to the turning force than a lightly loaded helicopter. Thus a helicopter turns less when heavily loaded and more when lightly loaded. To overcome the spinning and to prevent drifting, tie the helicopter securely to a dock or to the shore using the fore and aft cross tubes if not otherwise indicated in the POH or RFM. If help is not available for casting off, it may be necessary to paddle to a clear location well away from the shoreline for a safe start. Wind and water currents may cause the helicopter to turn or drift a considerable distance before control is obtained. To compensate, use a starting position upwind and upcurrent of a clear area. Illusions of movement or non-movement can make it difficult to maintain a fixed position during rotor engagement and runup. Techniques to overcome these illusions are discussed later.


Where possible, it is usually more convenient and safer to hover taxi to the destination. However, due to power limits, local restrictions, noise, water spray, or creating a hazard to other vessels or people, it may be necessary to water taxi the helicopter. To taxi in water, maintain full rotor r.p.m. and use sufficient up collective to provide responsive cyclic control to move the helicopter. Never bottom the collective pitch while the helicopter is in motion to avoid momentarily sinking the floats or capsizing the helicopter. Float equipped helicopters should be taxied with the nose in the direction of movement. Maximum taxi speed is attained when the bow wave around the nose of the floats rises slightly above the normal waterline. Beyond this speed, the bow wave flows over the front portion of the floats, and this severe drag may capsize the helicopter. When the helicopter is heavily loaded, it is restricted to a slower taxiing speed than when lightly loaded.When taxiing in small waves, point the helicopter into or at a slight angle to the waves. Never allow the helicopter to roll in the trough. In some instances, increasing collective can produce enough downwash to create a slight smoothing effect on windproduced waves. Aground swell can be dangerous to the tail rotor while the helicopter is riding up and pitching over the swell. Warning: During water operation, if there is any possibility that the tail rotor struck the water, do not attempt a takeoff. Although a tail rotor water strike may not show any visible evidence of damage, a tail rotor failure is likely to occur.


The preflight inspection consists of the standard aircraft inspection with a few additional items associated with the floats. When performing a preflight inspection, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. A typical inspection of the floats includes:

• Visual Inspection—Examine the floats for cuts, abrasions, or other damage.

• Inflation Check—Although proper inflation can be checked by hand feeling for equal pressure and firmness, a pressure gauge is the preferred method to check for the correct pressure listed in the POH or RFM. For flights to higher altitudes, adjust float pressure before takeoff so that maximum pressure is not exceeded, unless the floats are equipped with pressure relief valves.

• Valve Checks—Check the air valves by filling the neck with water and watching for bubbles. Examine fittings for security and, if operated in salt water, inspect for corrosion.

• Float Stabilizer, if equipped—Examine the float stabilizer and other float related surfaces for security and condition. Any indication of water contact requires, at a minimum, a visual inspection of the tail surfaces, tail boom, and mounts. Consult the aircraft’s maintenance manual for any additional required inspections.

• Float and Skid Freedom—In cold weather, it is common for floats and skids to freeze to the surface. Inspect the floats and skids for freedom of movement and obstructions. To help prevent this problem, try to park on a dry surface with proper drainage.

• Secure—Ensure all equipment is secure and properly stowed including survival equipment, anchors, tiedowns, and paddles. If possible, stow items inside the helicopter that could become loose and fly into the rotors.

• Survival Equipment—Check the quantity and condition of survival equipment including flotation devices, liferafts, provisions, and signaling devices. 9-4 Approach the swell at a 30º to 45º angle and use collective pitch to minimize bobbing. If it becomes obvious that continued water taxi could lead to a serious problem, lift the helicopter off and reassess the situation. It might be possible to land in an area that does not contain the same conditions. When hovering over or taxiing on water, movement of the helicopter may be difficult to judge. The rippling effect of the water from the downwash makes it appear as if the helicopter is moving in one direction when it is in fact stationary or even moving in the opposite direction. To maintain a fixed position or maintain a straight course while taxiing and hovering, use a fixed reference such as the bank or a stationary object in the water. When reference points are not available, judge movement by swirls, burbles, or slicks seen around the floats. Hovering a helicopter over open water can create deceptive sensations. Without a reference point, extensive or rapid helicopter movements may go unnoticed. Very smooth and very rough water aggravate this situation. The most desirable water conditions are moderate ripples from a light breeze. An odd sensation, similar to vertigo, is sometimes produced by the concentric outward ripples resulting from the rotorwash, and pilots must keep their eyes moving and avoid staring at any particular spot. The inexperienced pilot may choose to initiate a slight forward movement when taking off into or landing from a hover. This guards against undesirable backward or sideward drift during takeoff or landing. With smooth water conditions, the usual tendency is to hover too high because the outward-flowing ripples from the rotorwash gives the pilot the sensation of being in a bowl and descending.


A float equipped helicopter can perform a normal takeoff from a hover or directly from the water. If there is insufficient power available for a normal takeoff, a running takeoff from a slow forward taxi may be an option. However, remember that water creates drag, so with insufficient power, a running takeoff may not be possible either. The preferred method for taking off from water is to move forward into translational lift without pausing to hover after leaving the water. This type of takeoff is similar to a normal takeoff from the surface. A normal takeoff from a hover over water is similar to the same type of takeoff over a hard surface. A common problem is poor judgment of altitude and rate of acceleration, which causes the pilot to increase speed without an increase in altitude. This causes the helicopter to enter the high speed portion of the height/velocity diagram, reducing the probability of a successful autorotation in the event of an engine failure. Also, be aware of possible restricted visibility during takeoff from water spray produced by the rotors. To help alleviate these problem areas, as the helicopter begins to move forward, use reference points some distance in front of the helicopter. Over water, ground effect is reduced from the absorption of energy in the downwash. This increases the power required to hover and with other factors may exceed the power available. When this occurs, perform a slow taxi to a takeoff to take advantage of the translational lift produced from the forward motion. Remember, translational lift is also affected by any wind that is present. Apply sufficient collective pitch to keep the floats riding high or skimming the surface. While skimming the surface, float drag increases rapidly, and the takeoff must be executed promptly since a further increase in speed, with the floats plowing in the water, is likely to exceed the limit of aft cyclic control or cause the floats to tuck under the water. The speed at which the floats tuck under is the maximum forward speed that can be attained and is determined by the load and attitude of the helicopter. Never lower the collective during this procedure because doing so could bury the nose of the floats in the water and possibly capsize the helicopter.


Pilots performing glassy water landings may experience some difficulty in determining their altitude above the surface. The recommended procedure is to continue an approach to the surface with a slow rate of descent until making contact, avoiding any attempt to hover. The helicopter’s downwash creates a disturbance in the water as concentric ripples moving away from the helicopter. Although this provides the pilot with a visual reference, it may also cause the sensation of moving backwards or descending rapidly. A natural tendency is to apply too much collective pitch in an attempt to halt the perceived descent. To overcome the effects of these visual illusions, avoid staring at the water near the helicopter and maintain forward and downward movement until contacting the water. When making approaches to a landing on a large body of water when land areas or other fixed objects are not visible, occasionally glance to either side of the horizon to avoid stare-fixation. Another technique some pilots use when fixed objects are not available, and the water is glassy, is to make a low pass over the area to create a disturbance on the surface. This disturbance remains for a while giving the pilot a reference to help determine distance. When landing on water with a slight chop, bring the helicopter to a hover and descend vertically with no 9-5 horizontal movement. This procedure is similar to landing on a hard surface. Make a running landing on water when high density altitude or a heavy load results in insufficient power to hover. Perform this type of landing when sufficient power is not available to reduce the speed to 5 knots or less. When approaching with greater than 5 knots of speed, hold a slight nose-high attitude to allow the aft portion of the floats to plane. Maintain collective pitch until the speed reduces to below 5 knots, and the helicopter settles into the water. At zero groundspeed, slowly lower the collective into the full down position. Lowering the collective or leveling the helicopter too quickly may result in the floats tucking, which can cause the helicopter to capsize. Caution: The following discussion deals with landing in heavy seas. Use these procedures only in an emergency. Landing the float helicopter becomes risky when the height of short, choppy waves exceed one half the distance from the water to the helicopter’s stinger, and the distance from crest to crest is nearly equal to or less than the length of the helicopter. These waves cause the helicopter to pitch rapidly and may bring the rotor blades in contact with the tail boom or the tail rotor in contact with the water. In addition, avoid landing parallel to steep swells as this could lead to dynamic rollover. [Figure 9-5] If landing on waves higher than half the distance from water to stinger, the following techniques apply:

• Land the helicopter 30º to 45º from the direct heading into the swell. This minimizes the fore and aft pitching of the fuselage, reducing the possibility of the main rotor striking the tail boom, or the tail rotor contacting the water. This also minimizes the possibility of dynamic rollover. Perpendicular to Swell Parallel to Swell Angled 30° to 45° to Swell Rotor Strikes Tail Boom Dynamic Rollover Tail Rotor Strikes Water Figure 9-5. Effect of landing heading relative to waves. 9-6

• When landing with power, maintain rotor r.p.m. in the normal operating range. This permits a quick takeoff if the helicopter begins to pitch excessively or when an especially high wave becomes a hazard.

• When landing without power in high wave conditions, hold the desired heading as long as directional control permits. As the rotor r.p.m. decreases to the point that the desired heading cannot be maintained, bring the rotor to a stop as quickly as possible to avoid rotor contact with the tail boom.


An autorotation to water is similar to one performed on a hard surface except that during touchdown, the helicopter is kept in a slight nose-high position. For greater safety, slow to around 5 knots of forward speed. However, if this is not possible, maintain a slight nose-high attitude and full-up collective to allow the floats to plane until the speed decelerates below 5 knots. As the helicopter settles to the surface and slows to zero knots, level the helicopter with cyclic and lower the collective. Do not lower the collective or level the helicopter until the speed has reduced sufficiently or the floats may tuck causing the helicopter to capsize. Hold a pitch attitude that keeps the tail from contacting the water. Autorotations to smooth, glassy water may lead to depth perception problems. If possible, try to land near a shoreline or some object in the water. This helps in judging altitude just prior to touchdown.


Although a helicopter can be moored prior to shutdown, it is preferable to fly to a landing spot on the dock or shore prior to shutting down. The helicopter can then be parked there. If mooring is the only option, be aware of any posts or pillars that might extend above the main dock level. Even though there may be plenty of blade clearance when the rotor is at full r.p.m., blade droop due to low r.p.m. could cause the blades to come into contact with items on the dock. Also be aware of wind and waves that could tilt the helicopter and cause the blades to contact objects. If near an ocean or large body of water, tides could change the water level considerably in just a few hours, so anticipate any changes and position the helicopter to prevent any damage due to the changing conditions. When mooring the helicopter prior to shutting down, arrange the mooring lines so the tail cannot swing into objects once the rotors stop. Some pilots prefer to moor the helicopter nose in to protect the tail rotor. If there is sufficient room to allow for drift and possible turning or weathervaning, the helicopter may be shut down on open water, but wind and water currents may move the helicopter a considerable distance. When shutting down on open water, do so upwind or upcurrent and allow the helicopter to drift to the mooring buoy or dock. It might be necessary to use a paddle to properly position the helicopter. Because of the great danger from the main rotor or tail rotor of the helicopter to personnel, docks, or vessels, pilots should never attempt to water taxi up to a dock or vessel. In addition, loading or unloading passengers or freight from a partially afloat helicopter with the rotors turning is extremely dangerous. When loading or unloading passengers, the helicopter should be resting on a hard surface, either on the shore or on a helipad on a dock or on a boat. Passengers should always:

• stay away from the rear of the helicopter,

• approach or leave the helicopter in a crouching manner,

• approach from the side or front, but never out of the pilot’s line of vision,

• hold firmly to loose articles and never chase after articles that are blown away by the rotor downwash, and

• never grope or feel their way toward or away from the helicopter.


On helicopters equipped with floats-on-skids, ground handling usually can be performed with normal or slightly modified ground handling wheels. With the ground handling wheels kept onboard, the helicopter can be handled at any landing facility. On helicopters equipped with skids-on-floats, the helicopter must be transported by a special dolly or wheeled platform on which the helicopter lands. Unless a dolly or platform is available at the destination, the aircraft usually remains where it lands.


Ski equipped helicopters are capable of operating from snow and other soft surfaces that might otherwise inhibit conventional gear helicopters.


[Figure 9-6]

Snow can greatly reduce visibility causing pilot disorientation; therefore, special procedures are used when operating in snow.


Helicopter skis are made from plastics and composite materials such as fiberglass with steel and aluminum hardware. Steel runners on the bottoms of the skis protect them during hard surface operations. Excessive wear of these runners can lead to wear or damage to the skis. All of the steel bands securing the skis to the skids should have a protective rubber lining preventing the bands from wearing into the skids. This lining should be replaced if it becomes brittle or shows signs of wear. Have any damage to the skis repaired before flight even if the skis are not needed, or simply have the skis removed. A cracked ski could break off and damage the helicopter or injure people on the ground.


Apart from the small weight penalty and slight reduction in speed, a ski equipped helicopter operates exactly like one with no skis. The main concern when operating with skis is to avoid operations that may damage the skis, such as landing on rocks or rough hard surfaces.


The preflight inspection consists of the standard aircraft inspection and includes additional items associated with the skis. The POH or RFM contains the appropriate supplements and additional inspection criteria. Typical inspection criteria include:

• Hardware—Inspect all of the steel bands and bolts securing the skis to the skids for security. Check for any movement of the skis on the skids. A torque stripe can help determine if any movement has occurred.

• Liner—Inspect the rubber liner between the steel bands and the skids.

• Runners—Inspect the steel runners on the bottoms of the skis.

• Condition—Inspect the skis for cracks and check the edges for separation of fiber layers.

• Clean—Remove all snow and ice from the skis which could break off and cause damage to the tail rotor during flight.

• Ski Freedom—In cold weather, it is common for the skis to freeze to the surface. Inspect the skis for freedom of movement.

STARTING Helicopter starting procedures on snow and ice are identical to a hard surface starting procedure except that care must be taken to maintain antitorque control on a slippery surface. When performing the free-wheeling unit check on ice, place the pedals in the autorotation position to prevent the helicopter from spinning.


When hovering over snow, the rotorwash may create a white-out condition if sufficient loose snow is present. Blowing and drifting snow may give the illusion of movement in the opposite direction. When operating in snow, it is vital to select a reference point to maintain situational awareness and take off directly to a high hover at an altitude that allows visual contact to be maintained. When performing a hover taxi, select the speed just above effective translational lift to help keep the blowing snow behind the helicopter. If loose snow is less than 6 inches, it may be possible to apply collective pitch to create enough rotorwash to blow away the majority of the snow before lift-off. If moving the helicopter a short distance, and especially when around other aircraft, it might be preferable to surface taxi on the skis. When taxiing wheel-equipped helicopters on snow and ice, use caution when applying the brakes. If the helicopter begins to skid sideways, lower the collective, which places all of the weight on the wheels and move the cyclic in the opposite direction of the skid. If the skid continues, the best option at that point is to bring the helicopter into a hover, but be aware of objects that could lead to a dynamic rollover situation.


Normal takeoff procedures are used in snow and ice, but before startup, check the departure path for any obstructions that may be obscured by blowing snow. Powerlines are difficult to see in the best conditions and nearly impossible to recognize through blowing snow. Perform a takeoff from a hover or from the surface by fairly quickly increasing speed through effective translational lift and gaining altitude in order to fly out Figure 9-6. Ski equipped helicopter. 9-8 of the low visibility conditions. A takeoff from ice requires slow application of power and proper pedal application to prevent spinning. At certain temperatures, the skis may freeze to ice surfaces. If this occurs, a slight left and right yawing with the pedals may break the helicopter free. If this does not free the skids, shut down the helicopter and free them manually. Excessive pedal application could damage the skids.


As with takeoffs, landings in snow can prove to be extremely hazardous if reference points are not available. When possible, land near objects that won’t be easily obscured by blowing snow. If none are available, drop a marker made from a heavy object, such as a rock tied to a colored cloth; then retrieve it after landing. When the snow condition is loose or unknown, make a zero-groundspeed landing directly to the surface without pausing to hover. A shallow approach and running landing can be performed when the snow is known to be hard packed and obstacles are not hidden under the snow. The lower power required in a running landing reduces the downwash and the forward motion keeps blowing snow behind the helicopter until after surface contact. If the surface conditions are unknown, a low reconnaissance flight might be appropriate. This could be followed by a low pass. A low pass might blow away loose snow and keep the debris behind the helicopter. If the surface appears appropriate for a landing, make an approach to a high hover to blow away any remaining loose snow and begin a vertical descent to the landing. If the surface appears to be deep hard-packed snow or ice, lower the collective slowly on landing and watch for cracking in the surface. Should one skid break through the surface, a dynamic rollover is likely to follow, so be prepared to return to a hover if the surface is unstable. Skis are also very useful for landing on uneven or soft, spongy surfaces. They provide a larger surface area to support the helicopter, thus assisting in stability. Be sure that the skis are not hooked under roots or brush during lift-off.


Use normal autorotation procedures in ski equipped helicopters. Perform practice autorotations on snow or sod to reduce the wear on the skis.


Shut down before loading and unloading. If shutting down is not feasible, load and unload passengers only from the front during snow and ice operations. This prevents the main rotors from striking an individual should one landing gear drop through the snow or ice. Beware of loading and unloading while running in deep snow as the rotor clearance is reduced by the height of the snow above the skids. Most skis for skid-equipped helicopters allow use of standard or slightly modified ground handling wheels. Skis for wheel-equipped helicopters often have cutouts to allow the wheels to protrude slightly below the ski for ground handling.

List below the topics for Seaplane, Skiplane and Float Airplane types .

Seaplane Rules, Regulations, and Aids for Navigation

Principles of Seaplanes

Water Characteristics and Seaplane Base Operations

Seaplane Operations – Preflight and Takeoffs

Seaplane Performance

Seaplane Operations - Landings

Skiplane Operations

Emergency Open Sea Operations

Float and Ski Equipped Helicopters